America and China Are Locked in Battle for Control of the South China Sea

A welcoming ceremony for USS Shiloh’s arrival in Zhanjiang, China. Flickr/U.S. 7th Fleet

But zeroing in on one challenge area won't address larger shifts in Asia's balance of power.

The future of the global maritime commons and the Asian balance of power is at stake in the South China Sea. It’s valuable real estate: half of the world’s commercial shipping and $5 trillion of goods passes through it, connecting the world’s fastest growing economies. Beyond the economic and strategic value of the South China Sea, the matter of how China reacts to international law offers insight into what kind of a rising power China is, and what kind of norms it hopes to shape for the region around it.

In his new book The Pivot: The Future of American Statecraft in Asia, former Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell presents a stark choice for Asia, largely shaped by great power competition between the United States and China. Campbell sees China as the determining factor: will its leaders end up adopting twenty-first-century rules and norms, or will they overtly push for a return to nineteenth-century spheres of influence?

The Permanent Court of Arbitration’s South China Sea ruling came and went mostly as expected, overwhelmingly favoring Philippine claims and ruling against China’s sweeping nine-dash line and “historical rights.” While many pundits have belabored the South China Sea dispute as the litmus test for the United States’s ability to preserve the status quo balance of power in Asia, this echo chamber has muddied the waters and distracted from the larger picture. The South China Sea case was just the first manifestation in a wider contest over international law, values and the future of the global order taking place in Asia.

The headline-grabbing decision by the Permanent Court of Arbitration is about more than rocks and low-tide elevations (LTEs); and it is not, for that matter, about sovereignty, as Chinese commentators have insisted.

Rather, the Philippines, in a deft nod to the nuance of international law, petitioned the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea to determine whether certain rocks, reefs, and LTEs were entitled to the legal definition of islands, and 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zones (EEZs.)

The court rejected China’s definition of its manmade maritime bases as islands, and nullified its vague claim to the territories within the nine-dash line in which Beijing expresses so-called “historic rights” to fishing grounds far south of its mainland. The ruling also deemed China’s harassment of Philippine and Vietnamese fishermen within those waters as contrary to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS.)

We have already seen China thumb its nose at the decision of the UNCLOS tribunal; lean heavily on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to drive a wedge in the multilateral institution’s ability to issue protesting statements against Chinese behavior; and ply weaker neighbors with economic enticements to get its way. These are not indicators that Beijing will readily adhere to existing international legal norms.

The current tension will test the durability and flexibility of international law, and of China’s willingness to accept the status quo or whether it will seek to revise the current international order. As Sen. Ben Cardin noted recently in Foreign Policy, “Today is a day for nations to choose between continuing to build a world of rules, law, and order, or a return to a world of growing volatility add great power politics.”

Values Still Matter

Alongside competition for resources such as fisheries and hydrocarbon reserves and control of strategic chokepoints such as the Strait of Malacca (currently jointly patrolled by Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia), China and the United States are locked in competition for influence. The two espouse vastly different political systems, values, and worldviews, and these manifest in U.S. preoccupations with Myanmar’s “opening” to democracy on China’s border, Thailand’s turn toward China since its 2014 coup, and the foreign-policy alignment of traditionally neutral countries such as Indonesia and India.

Great power competition also obtains in U.S. support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade deal and its not-so-subtle opposition to the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) backed by China. With these competing visions, Beijing and Washington are seeking to write the “rules of the road” for twenty-first-century global trade architecture. Their conflicting ambitions present divergent possibilities for the region’s future, and reconciling these vastly different worldviews remains a challenge for the next generation of Asia hands. Nor will they be easy to retrench, since the governments of China, the United States and the Philippines have staked a high degree of national credibility on claims to national interests in this arena.

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